Recently, a friend who is in our age group – about 73 now – dislocated his shoulder. It affected some nerves in his hand and fingers and recovery, even with diligent rehab exercises, is slow. One of the effects is that for a time, he had difficulty tying his shoes.
He could do it, but it was slow-going involving several tries and could take up to five or ten minutes. Although he has come to know some of the young regulars at his gym who are professional trainers and who show him how to get the most from his workout, he told me he was certainly not going to ask any of them for help tying his shoes.
We broke into rueful laughter – instant communion between two old farts who understood intuitively that this was equally ridiculous and understandable.
Ridiculous because we're in our 70s, for gawd's sake - anyone can see we are old and shit happens at our age. Understandable because admitting our infirmities diminishes us in the eyes of younger people - and ourselves, a thought that circles us right back to ridiculous.
In his important book, What Are Old People For?, Dr. Bill Thomas writes:
“We tremble before the loss of function that defines the edge of our social world. There is a calamity, nearly as fearsome as death itself, which is ready to claim those who wander off the path of adulthood.
“Old age threatens us with social death, a banishment from our accustomed place in society.”
So, the shame we feel lies in failing to live up to requirements of a culture that bestows power, influence and prestige on active adults who project youthfulness or can, at least, affect its illusion. Everyone else is ignored, dismissed, made invisible.
No wonder my friend was loath to ask, as I would be in the same situation, for help with his shoes. Because we know society has no tolerance or place for the decline of age, we cling to such shreds of ego for as long as possible.
Not that I much like myself for it.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: Lost Love